Seeing His Irish

The always observant George Murray of Bookninja linked to a blog post by Irish writer Julian Gough, in which he says some not very flattering things about contemporary Irish literature, using some rather strong language. At least strong language as far as sites about books are concerned. (I’ve always wondered why bookish folks on the Internet tend to be, with only a handful of exceptions, the polite, cheerful, wouldn’t say shit if their mouths were full of it types. They’re the last folks I would expect to be afraid of words, but whatever. Working behind desks does that to some people.) George also links to the Guardian’s article about the post, which features responses from other Irish writers. It’s all so polite and hand-wringingly insecure they could almost be talking about CanLit.

I’m sure that’s very interesting, but for all that hullabaloo it misses the really cool bits of Gough’s post, which are about the interplay in his work between Standard English and local Irish dialects. He writes:

The Jude books are deliberately written in a stilted, old-fashioned, formal English, of the type spoken in Ireland a century ago. It’s the first-generation English of speakers who learnt English in school, from books, because their parents spoke Irish at home. For me this is a very rich form of English, because you can let the underlying Irish thoughts, structured in Irish grammar, burst through now and again. There is always a nice tension in the speech, as though Jude is walking on linguistic stilts, and has to be careful. He is trying to be terribly precise with a language he doesn’t really control or own.

I must be a real bastard for translators, because increasingly I like to back-engineer scenes so that a crucial line of narrative, thrown up by the action, is also a line of poetry by Yeats, or a line of dialogue is also a line of Joyce, or Kafka, or is made out of Radiohead song titles. They can be tricky to spot – most of my native-English readers miss most of them. And I also use the misunderstandings and gaps between American English and English English and Irish English to generate jokes and misunderstandings, and moments of unease.

I’m extremely jealous of the Irish for having that kind of opportunity. Yes, I live in Canada, which has two official languages and innumerable languages from our multi-cultural mosaic, blah blah blah, but that’s not really the same thing at all (besides, despite the acute accent on my last name, I’m not French-Canadian, and I speak so little French—or any other language but English—that I may as well speak none at all). Canadian English is frankly not distinct enough as a dialect, especially from American English, to play the kind of word games the Irish can all in one language, except maybe if you’re from Newfoundland, which I’m not. To have that kind of a tool available to me would be like a gift from the gods, and if contemporary Irish writers are wasting it the way Gough thinks they are, then shame on them. I get all tingly just thinking about it.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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